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So-called Expert Claims Internet Yellow Pages “Overrated”

In the title of a transparently self-serving press release, Barry Maher claims that “online yellow pages advertising (is) often overrated”. Maher says in the release, “It may be the wave of the future, but the dull, old-fashioned, low-tech print directories are still the wave of the present. Businesses do need to be online. Just not at the expense of what’s driving in the dollars today.”

He goes on to say that “For most local companies, there’s still far, far more potential business in the print directories than in anything they might do online.”

(Before I go further, I should disclose that I work for arguably the biggest combined print and online yellow pages company in the US. My comments on this matter are merely my own opinion, though, and not any sort of official stance from my company.)

It seems to me that the headline title of the PR was intended to be controversy-provoking in order to attract more attention than an announcement about the publication of a book on how to advertise in yellow pages would otherwise be (yawn!). The intention was to promote Maher’s book on optimizing print YP ads, So, I really hesitated about rewarding this sort of thing with yet more attention than it merits. Yet, I believe that this claim is pretty irresponsible, so I’m going to address it. I don’t think that Maher can possibly understand IYP nor general internet advertising or he could not have said that “there’s… more potential business in the print directories… than… online” (paraphrased).

Read on and I’ll explain why I think this was not reasonable.

Just on the face of it, internet ads and info are just keystrokes away from millions more consumers than the drastically more limited distribution of any printed books. So, there can be no question that there’s more potential business possible through IYP than Print YP.

The two media have disparate methods for tracking ad performance. But some IYP provide pay-for-performance ads which only have you paying when a user clicks through to your information or when a user phones you. If you figure up your average conversion rates — how much money do you make on average when someone contacts your business — then you can figure out how much you’ll be willing to pay for those referrals. A plumber might make an average of $50 gross per phone call let’s say just for the purposes of illustration, so he might be completely willing to pay quite a bit for each referral. With pay-for-performance, he can “buy” as much business as he wants without it ever really being a losing proposition.

As long as the acquisition cost is sufficiently outweighed by the associated income, how can anyone complain? With pay-for-performance, there are much better metrics for telling if the ad is effective enough, and one can adjust the campaign to fine-tune it by changing keyword targets, ad copy, and geographic targeting. With print, one has a single chance each year to get it right, and then you have to live with (and pay for) the ad until the next year.

With print YP, that same plumber typically will have to pay a fixed fee per year just to get impressions that are based off of distribution numbers, with fewer ways of assessing conversions derived from the ads. Sure, he could get a tracking phone number for the print ad for some directories, but one “secret” detail is that data aggregators collect data out of phonebooks across the US, and sell that data to online YPs. So, a tracking phone number may actually be sending calls to the plumber from more sources than just that particular printed book. In most cases, print advertisers are not using any sort of tracking to figure out where their referrals are coming from. So, they’re paying to be in printed books which people may or may not be using — most advertisers just won’t know for sure.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that the print yellow pages is not dead yet, and I believe that advertising in them still brings some very good exposure. But, I think that those of us who have ready internet access are using print directories less and less. Research analysts are predicting the decline of print YP within ten years, according to some for this very reason. While there’s still value in them, if usage is declining as many of us have cause to believe, then advertisers will have steadily declining exposure and referrals from them. If the trend is a geometric progression over ten years, it would be reasonable to reduce print spend by 10% each year, and increase online spend by the same amount.

There’s good research indicating that the internet user demographic is typically more affluent than consumers and households which have not adopted the internet. So, potential customers who are more likely to be able to buy a business’s products and services will be online.

Considering all this, issuing a press release which would lead local businesses to be more hesitant about advertising in online YP is irresponsible. Just as with any other ad media, businesses need to carefully select advertising products that bring in more money than they cost. As long as you can tie your advertising costs to profit, I think the best approach is to cast your nets wide and advertise in as many distribution channels as possible in order to maximize exposure.

The press release refers to Barry Maher as “the expert TIME called, ‘the most widely respected consultant, speaker and writer’ on Yellow Pages advertising”. It seems odd that I’ve worked in the YP industry for a decade and hadn’t heard of Maher before. So, I went over to Greg Sterling’s blog and he said that he’d never heard of Maher, either. Now, Sterling is a widely recognized expert in local media, so this is perhaps pretty telling.

I see that Maher responded to Sterling’s criticism of the PR:

“I’m just saying that at this point 70 million references a month is dwarfed by 1.5 billion refences a month to the print product and small business people need to understand that.”

It’d be really great if Maher would mention sources for the 1.5 billion references data, particularly since I wasn’t aware that printed books have technology embedded in them in order to count when users look at them, similar to what we have for tracking usage of interet sites. Seriously, though, I believe I can point out the logic failure in this reasoning. He’s likely comparing usage of all print directories, worldwide or nationwide, collectively with usage of all online yellow pages. Even if these two numbers, each counted/estimated in entirely different manners, were accurate, it’s not right to group usage together in this manner.

Let’s say that a major printed yellow pages directory for the Greater Dallas Area is distributed to the tune of two million copies. The distribution/circulation numbers for that book are based on how many places the books were delivered to, but quite a lot of major metro areas have multiple books, so individuals are likely throwing one of the competing books in the trash. In other cases, households might keep the book, but if they have internet access or wireless phone applications, they may not be using the print books any more.

Online yellow pages are not limited to only local distribution. People all over the world use online yellow pages to plan for travelling to Dallas, whereas they do not have access to those local print directories. There’s also a lot of B2B stuff that’s now going on through the internet, too. Further, I suspect that his 1.5 billion references number is arrived at by counting total numbers of distributed print directories across the nation, then multiplying that by some estimated number of times that people look something up in the print books. That estimated number is likely based on random calling of a representative sample set of individuals in an area, and polling them to see how often they use their printed YP per month.

If I’m right and the sampling was done through calling a set of consumers in the area and asking them survey questions, I bet the sample set of users come primarily from people who still have landlines for their telephones. People with landlines still are listed in white pages, while most of those who have dropped their landline service in favor of wireless phones are not in the white pages. If a research company randomly sampled people listed in local white pages directories as to their print YP usage habits, they’ll get a decided slant in favor of print usage. People who still have landlines are less likely to have internet connections in their homes, perhaps, because they may be slow adopters of new technology.

Regardless, the estimated numbers of print directory users per month are going to be arrived at through methods that are completely different from the numbers of users conducting online local searches, and comparing them as though you’re comparing apples with apples is not going to give a truly representative comparison for the purposes of basing business decisions. I think it’s likely that the print usage estimates will by nature have a far higher degree of error, compared with IYP usage, since online sites have better information for telling when someone looks at any given page.

Just for fun, let’s see what another local media expert has to say about the subject. Dick Larkin is a yellow pages industry veteran, and Barry Maher himself apparently respects his word, if Maher’s testimonial for Larkin is any indication. In a recent blog entry, Larkin writes:

“…60% of local look-ups occur in the print world (for now). While the shift to Internet is dramatic, print is still viable in many markets. Don’t wait too long to advertise online, because all indications show local web search surpassing print as early as next year and being totally dominant in three short years. The lesson here is to advertise where you get results regardless of the medium. That may be common sense, but it sure ain’t common practice.”

Now THAT sounds much more like fair, balanced advice! 

Local businesses who are not participating in online advertising are likely losing out to their savvier competitors on business growth opportunities. Print still has a lot of juice left in it, but ignoring the online growth trend is not a good strategy for small businesses.

14 comments for So-called Expert Claims Internet Yellow Pages “Overrated” »

  1. MyAvatars 0.2

    This is a well-thought out rebuttal.

    As a former journalist, I thought it highly unlikely that a supposedly ‘unbiased’ journalist would ever refer to someone as “the most widely respected consultant, speaker and writerâ€? on Yellow Pages advertising. At the very least there would have to be some kind of attribution.

    I did some research to try and find this article and could not. If anyone could post it, I would appreciate it.

    Let’s not forget what this is all about – small business and their livelihood.

    Check out and support small business and their online marketing efforts.

    Comment by kevin — 11/17/2006 @ 1:46 pm

  2. MyAvatars 0.2

    Actually, I enjoyed your article. I even agree with most of it. But I deal with literally thousands of Yellow Pages advertisers a year. Too many of them have prematurely jumped on the bandwagon, pulling their money out of print products and putting it into IYP and local search, often IYP and local search that aren’t working particularly well in their area.

    It’s happening all the time and it’s becoming more and more of a problem. I don’t believe that pointing that out is irresponsible. What is irresponsible in my opinion is selling ineffective advertising whether it’s print Yellow Pages or IYP. This is especially true when the companies doing the selling realize just how ineffective their products are, but hope that in the future they’ll work a lot better. Anyone who doesn’t think SOME IYP have been sold that way in that past and are far too often continuing to be sold that way is, in my opinion not in touch with what is really happening on the streets.

    I’m not a champion of print Yellow Pages. (There are a lot of Yellow Pages publishers who would be happy to tell you that. Some of them think I hate the medium) I’m not a champion of IYP. I’m a champion of advertising that works.

    As for the numbers I quoted, I was using those generally accepted inside and outside the industry, which are about 18 billion references to print Yellow Pages in the U.S yearly. Those come from the ongoing YPA National Yellow Pages Usage study done by Burt Michaels at SRI which is generally considered the best info available on the subject. The IYP figures I’d accepted for the sake of argument from the person I was responding to, 70 million worldwide per year. In my opinion those figures are low. But since I was comparing U.S. figures for print to worldwide figures for IYP, if anything the disparity between the two is even greater.

    However that’s not really pertinent. Joe the Plumber doesn’t care how many reference any medium gets worldwide or in the U.S or even in his market. All he cares about is how many references and ultimately how much business his ad or listing generates in his particular market in any particular print or online Yellow Pages or local search.

    As for my self-serving press release? Guilty as charged. I’ve actually never seen a press release that wasn’t self serving. This one was designed by my PR guy to generate interviews in print and on the radio. It wasn’t designed to be printed as an article or to advise advertisers or to do anything but present some of my credentials as a potential interviewee on the subject. That said, I stand by everything in the release.

    As for Dick Larkin’s comment which you quoted not only do I agree with them I quoted Dick pretty much to that effect in my book. As someone who’s been involved with IYP from the beginning (that’s where I first met Dick) I would never diss IYP, neither in my book or anyplace else. But I do advise against advertisers wasting money by pulling everything out of the print Yellow Pages in favor of the IYP and local search without knowing exactly what they’re doing. Not that it can’t be done effectively, it can be. But far too often it isn’t.

    And yes, right now and in virtually every local market in the U.S. far more business is coming in through print directories than through all IYP or local search. It won’t stay that way but that’s not only the consensus of opinion of the leading experts that’s the ONLY opinion I could find when interviewing for the latest edition of my book agreed. And believe me I tried to find someone with solid credentials who I could quote diffently. That’s what I meant by “potential” business for the advertiser. Too many advertisers are now ignoring that potential at their peril.

    Comment by Barry Maher — 11/18/2006 @ 7:13 pm

  3. MyAvatars 0.2

    One last comment. As you may or may not have noticed, the first press release for the most recent edition for my book talked about how much money was being wasted in the print Yellow Pages. And right now a lot more ineffectual print advertising is being sold than IYP advertising.

    Comment by Barry Maher — 11/18/2006 @ 7:33 pm

  4. MyAvatars 0.2

    Maybe we could give Gold Stars to Press Releases that are altuistic in nature.

    Comment by Charles Masterson — 11/19/2006 @ 2:35 pm

  5. MyAvatars 0.2

    It sounds as if we are all in some general agreement that both media are worthwhile and both are potentially good for small businesses. Also, it sounds as if we all generally agree that businesses should take care to only buy advertising that’s performing for them.

    I probably just object to how the press release was done, which is where I base the assessment that it was irresponsible. Small business owners who haven’t tried any/much online advertising would be quite likely to be lead to believe that IYP was a bad buy, period, based solely on that press release. Perhaps if they read your book, they wouldn’t conclude that it was a black/white, either-or proposition, but we can reasonably figure that all people reading that press release are not going to all buy and read the book. If they take away the soundbite only, most small biz owners might be lead to think they needn’t bother with IYP at all. The PR was simply spun too harshly in tone towards IYP.

    Certainly, press releases are supposed to promote their principal subjects, but I said it was “self-serving” with the intended additional colorings of meaning that it promoted its subject at the expense of well-rounded advice, to the detriment of small businesses that could be lead astray, just as the dictionary meaning of self-serving describes.

    Comment by Chris Silver Smith — 11/19/2006 @ 8:11 pm

  6. MyAvatars 0.2

    Mr. Masterson: naturally, press releases shouldn’t be expected to be altruistic. But, if they’re primarily based upon criticism of something or someone else, under the guise of being in the best interest of their audience, then the basis of the criticism needs to be rock-solid or it’s open to question whether it’s truly representing the audience’s welfare.

    It came across to me as an unqualified attack. From Mr. Maher’s subsequent responses, I now think he does have small business’s interests at heart and he’s seen some examples where people reduced print while increasing online to their detriment. But, I still think the press release’s tone/message was really bad, and I’m not the only one who took it that way. Part of it said:

    Contrary to popular opinion, many local businesses are wasting money advertising on online yellow pages and local search

    My opinion is that Pay-for-Performance ads in IYP and Local Search are demonstrably hardly ever a waste, and are quite a bit more effective than the fixed-fee ads common to print. If my proposition is correct, then the above quote from the PR is mostly wrong: comparatively few local businesses are wasting money via online.

    Comment by Chris Silver Smith — 11/19/2006 @ 9:11 pm

  7. MyAvatars 0.2

    There is nothing unusual or uncommon about “attack ads” nor is there always a solid foundation for them other than a simple point of view.

    But to call out a Press release as being “self-serving” as if that was rare, suggests you simply disagree with the writers point of view. Its attacking the messenger instead of the message.

    Always considered poor form in debate.

    Comment by Charles Masterson — 11/20/2006 @ 12:44 am

  8. MyAvatars 0.2

    You’ve got me drawn in again. I don’t think we have any substantial disagreement, Chris.

    First, I will say again is that the headline was a headline for a press release not for a news story or an article. I’ve been writing books and articles for over 20 years and I have never had anyone publish a press release as is. It just isn’t done, at least not in the print world.

    Just as it isn’t done to comment on someone’s motives or expertise without contacting them to give them a chance to provide their side of the story.

    Again I didn’t write the headline or the release but I do stand by it. It was simply a teaser to draw the journalist into the release.

    It is rather analogous to the AARP ad campaign, “Don’t vote!” repeated over and over. Did a few people change channels before hearing the rest of the message? Of course. Were people saying “Oh, I guess I shouldn’t vote because AARP doesn’t want me to?” If the headline, got their attention and they were interested, they listened to the rest of the ad.

    In this case, if the headline got their attention and they were interested, journalists read into the release where they would find my quote:

    “It may be the wave of the future,â€? says Maher. “But the dull, old-fashioned, low-tech print directories are still the wave of the present. Businesses do need to be online. Just not at the expense of what’s driving in the dollars today. For most local companies, there’s still far, far more potential business in the print directories than in anything they might do online.â€?

    I think that is an entirely fair assesment of my feelings on the subject. And I don’t find that a bit quote a bit misleading. I was hardly telling people to pull all their advertising out of IYP or that online advertising didn’t ever work. I was just telling them to do it after due consideration.

    After reading that, any journalist who was still interested in doing a story would contact me to see what I based my conclusions on, what my standing to make such a statement was, etc. and they would have a story. Or maybe just the beginning of the story. In all likelihood, they would want to talk to a few advertisers, some who wasted money online, some who were successful online.

    I have to admit I hadn’t taken the world of blogging into consideration.

    Now to be fair to your point of view, we probably should have included comments in the press release on the other reason why I feel billions are being wasted online. As everyone selling ads on the street knows, a lot of advertisers are buying IYP as the flavor of the month without any real investigation. And SOME of those IYP are still not currenly performing the way the advertisers are being led to believe they will. As you know, a number of IYP are still refusing to provide numbers as to how many times an ad or listing is referenced. And that’s certainly not because those numbers aren’t so high.

    I know advertisers who have been sold package IYP and print Yellow Pages deals who have been paying on them monthly since about 1996 or 97 and can’t say for sure if they have gotten a dollar’s worth of business from that IYP.

    Bottom line, though. Even if this press release had somehow gotten directly into the hands of advertisers I really wouldn’t have a problem with it. Because anyone reading the headline who was interested would certainly read a bit further into the release to find that quote before making any radical decisions. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is, in my opinion, underestimating the intelligence of the small businessperson.

    In any case, thanks for your comments. I will also grant you want you granted me. I’m sure you had the best interests of the advertisers at heart.

    Comment by Barry Maher — 11/20/2006 @ 6:35 pm

  9. MyAvatars 0.2

    I guess I really don’t have what it takes to be a blogger. One more typo. Obviously it should have read. “And that’s certainly not because the numbers ARE so high.” I need to stick to writing for print, where I’ve got an editor who can point out my screw ups before they get published.

    Comment by Barry Maher — 11/20/2006 @ 6:42 pm

  10. MyAvatars 0.2

    For what it’s worth, I have heard of Barry Maher and have been in the industry longer than both Dick and Greg combined.

    But longevity in the industry isn’t the issue here – Barry has worked to put out a nice product here. And given the normal bias that is consistently put up against print YP as not being a real media, sure, Barry needs to do as much as possible to put the word out that the book is now available.

    Long live capitalism….

    Comment by Ken Clark — 11/21/2006 @ 5:34 pm

  11. MyAvatars 0.2

    Thanks, Ken. (Ken is the publisher of the first-rate industry newsletter, YP Talk.)

    And yes, we did bust our butts to make sure Getting the Most from the Yellow Pages was as accurate as it could possibly be.

    However (sheepishly) I can’t say the same for my blogging entries. I just noticed another typo in my last rant.

    I said “I feel billions are being wasted online.” Obviously that should have read “millions” (if perhaps many millions). I guess I’m so used to writing “billions” when it comes to Yellow Pages that that’s what automatically came out. Again, that’s why I work with a proof reader, an editor and a fact checker and obviously shouldn’t be running around loose without them.

    Comment by Barry Maher — 11/21/2006 @ 8:45 pm

  12. MyAvatars 0.2

    My credentials … 13 years in the yellow page business with the largest publisher in the world in one of the biggest markets.

    Lots of businesses are making a big mistake pulling money out of print to go onto the internet. And conversely, lots of businesses should increase their internet presence.

    The hot headings in print and online are different. If you don’t have a visual product — things like plumbing, tree trimming, tow trucks, locksmiths and hundreds more service businesses it’s faster for most people to pick up the phone book and call you. If you do have a visual product like beauty salons, restaurants, landscape contractors you should have a big internet program, but even in those businesses, lots of the accounts have really lousy web sites so internet marketing doesn’t help them convert prospects to sales.

    Comment by juliemarg — 2/3/2007 @ 10:44 am

  13. MyAvatars 0.2

    We have owned a local business for over 20 years, have had a website for 11 years, started aggressively optimizing the site about 4 years ago and have reasonable experience with a web presence, YP, and some experience w/IYP.

    For years YP was a strong contributor to our revenues, generally being the 2nd-4th most important source of business (after newspaper classified, word of mouth WOM–and some others). YP offered one of the highest conversion rates between source of leads and sales (usually just tailing WOM).

    Over the last few years leads from classified and YP have dried up and conversion ratios are down dramatically.

    We have cut back on some of that….but didn’t until some time after we saw significant drops in total leads and conversions and % of sales to leads.

    Also at max, we were in 17 regional editions of YP between 2 different books and included a certain level of larger ads.

    having said all that, there are a growing number of ways beyond IYP that have the same and/or a better effectiveness than IYP:

    better serps
    other se’s
    other community sites
    other communities
    a myriad of focused relevant web links, etc etc.

    Even as IYP might be gaining revenues and YP could and will be losing revenues, IYP has a long way to go to be as powerful within the web as it was a unique print product.

    At this point in time the most powerful internet source is simple highly ranked serps within G. Everything else tails dramatically!


    Comment by earlpearl — 2/3/2007 @ 5:15 pm

  14. MyAvatars 0.2

    This is an unscientific finding but probably a pretty good barometer of what is happening in the IYP space. I was just at a small business conference yesterday in nyc called and Justin Kitch, CEO of asked a crowd of about 400 people “how many people in the last year were using their yellow page print books?” NOT A SINGLE PERSON RAISED THEIR HAND! He also asked the crowd how many people used a travel agent in the last year. Only about 4 people raised their hands.

    Comment by Jim Peake — 2/14/2007 @ 11:59 am

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